We have been fans of Oregon wine for a very long time which has translated into multiple trips to the State over the past several years. Our most recent trip was prompted by two things: the Willamette Valley region being named “Region of Year” by Wine Enthusiast magazine, and the praise being heaped on the 2014 and 2015 Pinot Noir vintages currently being released. What we discovered is that while Pinot Noir is what put the Willamette Valley on the world wine map, it is what the area offers as a whole that makes it the perfect place to visit time and again.
Only an hour’s drive from Portland, the Willamette Valley is easily accessible with plenty of accommodation options to suit every budget. And, similar to all wine regions, it is farm country which means direct access to fresh, local and organic food that translates into a fantastic farm-to-table foodie scene. We started our journey in the northern part of the valley which we know reasonably well but also visited the southern part of the valley for the first time which was nothing short of a revelation.
Northern Willamette Valley – McMinnville
Approximately 60 minutes’ drive from Portland and the gateway to the northern Willamette Valley sits the charming town of McMinnville. The historic part of town features turn of the century buildings and a genuine local atmosphere, providing a great feel for both the area’s history and a sense of the people who call it home. In past trips we have stayed at McMenamins’ Hotel Oregon, an historic building right on the main corner that has enjoyed many lives since 1905 including a greyhound bus station, a restaurant, a soda fountain and beauty parlor. Whether you are staying there or not, be sure to stop in at the rooftop bar for pint of the local craft brew which offers unparalleled 360 degree views.
But on this trip we discovered a new favourite place to stay that was the perfect combination of luxurious boutique hotel and vacation rental known as the 3rd Street Flats. Also located off the main street it features eleven flats that are both spacious and beautifully designed. As frequent travellers we particularly loved the feel of settling into a place to temporarily call home, as opposed to just staying in a hotel room. Having a full kitchen, dining room and living room also provides the option to stay in with that great bottle of Oregon wine you purchased at a local tasting room along with fresh goods you picked up from the local market.
Whenever we are exploring a region whether for the first time or for 10th, we always get local recommendations. At least three separate people, unprompted by us, recommended the Valley Commissary for breakfast. Not surprisingly, it was delicious. Everything is made from scratch and all ingredients are locally sourced. As a result, the menu changes daily due to seasonality making it a challenge to recommend a specific dish. That being said the Sweet Potato hash and the breakfast sandwich were both easily the best we’d ever tasted. Another local tip aimed at coffee lovers is to visit the Flag & Wire coffee company right behind Valley Commissary for the best cup in town.
Nick’s Italian Café
Right next door to Hotel Oregon is Nick’s Italian Café, a McMinnville must. This legendary restaurant is widely known as a winemaker hangout and has been recognized as an “American Classic” by the James Beard Foundation. Featuring wood oven pizzas, handmade pastas and a terrific local wine list, there’s a reason locals and tourists alike flock here.
Thistle Restaurant & Bar
Just across the street from Nick’s is Thistle Restaurant and Bar, a casual bistro style spot that is so dedicated to their local bounty, they don’t just source from nearby farmers, they are involved in the farming process. They list all 15 farms they work with on their website so you know exactly where the food on your plate is coming from.
The Painted Lady Restaurant
To enjoy the absolute finest in Willamette Valley dining, look no further than the Painted Lady Restaurant. This is in no way an ordinary restaurant. Besides being located in a historic building, you are literally made to feel as though you are at a guest at a friend’s exquisite home experiencing a meal, not just eating it. Their reliance on seasonal produce from local farmers means a constantly changing menu to ensure that only the best ingredients available are used daily. They also have one of the most extensive wine lists in the area, highlighting the Valley’s offerings but also providing for a truly international selection. To genuinely appreciate the Painted Lady at its best, we highly recommend the Chef’s tasting menu paired with wines thoughtfully chosen by their sommelier.
In 1965 David Lett planted some of the earliest Pinot Noir vines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the ones that really influenced the development of the State’s wine industry. Fifty years later the region is home to more the 700 wineries producing some of the best of this varietal worldwide along with other cool climate wines such as Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Syrah. But what particularly stood out for us as we interviewed multiple winemakers throughout the region was the sense of community among them.
Instead of competing with each other, they encourage, commiserate, challenge and collaborate on a level we’ve not witnessed anywhere else. It is this sense of community in the Willamette Valley we believe that is a big reason behind the region’s success. They understand that achievement for any one winery benefits the region as a whole. On more than one occasion we would be leaving a winery to go to the next and upon mentioning where we were going, we would be asked to deliver a bottle on their behalf to the winemaker we were about to meet (a service we were glad to provide despite the temptation to shove the bottle in our trunk and take it home!).
Wine enthusiasts will know the Drouhin name as a family with a long history of wine making that originates in Burgundy, France, the mecca of Pinot Noir growing regions. The Drouhin family recognized Oregon’s potential early on and brought their knowledge and skill to the northern Willamette Valley establishing a winery in the late 1980’s. Not surprisingly, their wines are as elegant and refined as you would find in Burgundy demonstrating the exceptional terroir that the Willamette Valley provides for cool climate grapes. One of the most prominent wineries in the Willamette Valley, no trip to the area would be complete without a visit to its beautiful tasting room complete with gorgeous panoramic view.
In the heart of the northern Willamette Valley sits Mineral Springs Ranch, a stunning property in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA that is home to Soter Vineyards. As you wind your way up the picturesque driveway, past the oak trees and greenery, you come upon their beautiful tasting room that sits atop a hill offering a bird’s eye view of the valley. Inside, the greeting is as welcoming and warm as the fireplace in the corner. But don’t let the tasteful design and detail distract you too much, these wines are among the very best in the valley and deserve your undivided attention.
ROCO Winery owner Rollin Soles is a local legend who has been making wine for more than thirty years. He is the only Oregon winemaker to have produced wine ranked among the Top 100 Wines of the World by Wine Spectator an incredible 13 times, and in 2012 was named one of the top 20 most admired winemakers in the U.S. by Vineyard & Winery Management magazine. Having met him in person, we’re not surprised. His tradition of making outstanding Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wine continues at ROCO where his generosity with both his time and knowledge were additionally remarkable.
Having been to numerous wineries around the world, nothing is more fun than discovering a real gem for the first time. Alexana Vineyards was that find for us on this trip. One of the most unique properties we’ve come across, it is home to no less than eighteen soil types divided into numerous parcels to extract the very best from each micro-region. Winemaker Bryan Weil is as passionate as he is talented and if you’re lucky enough to meet him and taste with him, you’ll be hard pressed to walk away without a wonderful memory not to mention a few bottles of great wine.
Big Table Farm
One of the things we love about wine is that it brings people together; Big Table Farm has built their winery and farm on this concept. Winemaker Brian Marcy and partner Clare Carver have combined their passion for wine, food, and art into a place that is one part winery, one part working farm, and all parts impressive.
Another one of Oregon’s best is Cristom Vineyards. What sets Cristom apart from other wineries is the intensity of the flavours they are able to derive without the wine coming across as extracted or heavy. They manage to deliver powerful aromas and flavours without sacrificing the light silkiness on the palate that is the hallmark of great Pinot Noir.
Leading the charge in bringing innovative and unpredictable wines to the region is Remy Drabkin owner and winemaker at Remy Wines. Her small production winery specializes in single vineyard Barbera, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, and Lagrien. Her tasting room sits in a warehouse with a garage door serving as her front entrance, resembling more of a neighbourhood public house than a tasting room.
South Willamette Valley – Eugene
Our first time visiting the southern part of the Willamette Valley was nothing short of a revelation. We were based in Eugene, which we knew only as a “College Town” as it is home to the University of Oregon. But what we discovered was a truly underrated place to visit for even the most discerning foodie or wine lover.
Inn at the 5th
The epitome of luxurious boutique hotel, the Inn at the 5th is a 69 room hotel that emphasizes quality and service, without pretention. Each room is beautifully appointed with stylish themes and thoughtful amenities such as custom Italian linens, spa showers and private butler’s closets ensuring complete privacy for any hotel room deliveries. As seasoned travellers it’s not easy to find a place that has that rare combination of comfort and style that has literally thought of everything so you don’t have to. Conveniently located within the 5th Street Public Market, you have access to everything you could possibly need from shopping to dining to spa treatments, and even wine tasting, within a half block radius.
Marché & Le Bar
Founding owner and chef Stephanie Pearl Kimmel has attained beyond legendary status in the state for her pioneering of the locally sourced, seasonal food movement long before it became fashionable. A longtime supporter of the local wine industry, she was putting Oregon wine on her list while the region was still in its infancy. After a successful run of restaurants, a critically acclaimed cookbook and an award winning cooking series, she opened Marché, a contemporary French bistro in the 5th Street Public Market. She has since opened Marché Provisions also in the market that is a one-stop shop for all things fresh and local including charcuterie, coffee, ice cream, and a wine bar.
It’s rare that you’ll see a successful winemaker making his name in Napa give up a sure thing to move to Oregon and start a new winery working with a completely different grape and climate. That’s exactly what Steve Girard did and the Willamette Valley is that much better for it. All of the grapes are estate grown and predominately Pinot Noir, the largest producer of estate Pinot Noir in the south Willamette Valley. Steve and his winemaking team’s relentless pursuit of quality has resulted in more “Top 100 Wines of the World” for still wine production since 2005 and we were thoroughly impressed by the lineup we tasted. With a lovely tasting room off Territorial Highway, our only disappointment was being there off season so we couldn’t enjoy their delicious wines on their beautiful deck while the pizza oven was fired up!
King Estate Winery
To say we were surprised by what we found when we visited King Estate Winery would be a massive understatement. About a 30 minute drive from downtown Eugene via roads that took us through rural farmland, we turned the last corner to see a massive chateau sitting atop a hill surrounded by a thousand acres of vines. As we wound up the long driveway, we passed a flock of turkeys, rows of lavender bushes and a pear orchard before finally stopping at the door of the castle-like structure. A tour of the estate revealed massive fermenters, an equally sizeable underground barrel room and a trip to the top of the tower revealing some impressive 360 degree views. We were treated to a spectacular meal in the restaurant that featured vegetables and herbs grown from the property’s gardens that paired brilliantly with their wine.
Despite numerous visits to the Willamette Valley, we still feel as though we’ve only scratched the surface with all that this region has to offer. World-class wine, outstanding food quality and uniquely northwest accommodations is all the more reason to keep coming back.